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The people’s responsibility to stand in solidarity with the poor

09 January 2013

Oxfam's chief executive makes some thought-provoking observations about transitioning to a sustainable and just world, and points towards an important question: what will it take to spur a mass engagement of ordinary people around the need to end poverty and social injustice?

In an article in this month's Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking, makes some thought-provoking observations about the state of poverty and social injustice in the world today. Reflecting back on the 12 years she has spent at the helm of the global charity, she notes how there used to be a feeling that things were generally getting better in the world, and that Western governments were beginning to respond to the needs of the poorest people with increased aid and debt relief. But now climate change is hitting countries hard, and it is always the poorest people that are hit first and hardest. And since the global economic crisis erupted, governments and their publics are ‘battening down the hatches' and demonstrating a much narrower view of the world.

She says: "Global governance is in the doldrums, with increasing difficulty in getting global agreements about anything and relatively little global attention given to poor people. So we are at a tipping point. There is no doubt in my mind that we could end absolute poverty in a matter of years. But it will now be especially difficult if the global powers cannot reach an acceptable agreement on tackling climate change. It has become a much tougher political environment in which to make decisions, yet these are pressing decisions that are vital to all of us, and lack of action will have a devastating effect on poor people."

It is perhaps an accurate and discouraging observation that Stocking makes, but one that raises an important question. Humanity seems to be at an impasse, and unable to overcome the vested interests and structural barriers to progress that we face. The many international negotiations to deal with the world's interlocking crises continue to fail, year upon year, as fatefully demonstrated again recently with the charade of climate talks at Doha. At the same time, there is less overall priority and concern now being given to the needs of the very poorest people, not only from governments but also from the world's public. In a world where there is more than enough food to feed everyone, for example (a fact often repeated by Barbara Stocking), the issue of world hunger is far from being a rallying cry for the thousands of protesters across Europe and North America. So if world public opinion does not express solidarity with the very poorest and most deprived people, how will governments be forced to respond to the immediate needs of the poor for adequate food, healthcare, shelter and other human rights?

In her article, Stocking adds: "Many people in the affluent world do have enormous compassion for poor people - we see that from the huge willingness to give, especially in humanitarian crises. But they are often unaware of how policies in their own countries are exactly the ones keeping people in poverty. Changing these policies is hard though because of vested interests, and it is difficult to explain what is needed to people who have an awful lot of other things on their mind and in any case often feel that they, as individuals, cannot do anything about these big issues."

This is where the wider social justice movements come in, says Stocking. And there is no doubt that the myriads of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and grassroots movements across the world play a crucial role by standing in solidarity with poor people, battling with the bigger issues and speaking truth to power. But the question remains as to whether the huge vested interests that stand in the way of meaningful change can ever be overcome by the relative minority of NGOs and campaigners in the world. The real question, as always, is what will spur a mass engagement of ordinary people around the need to end poverty and social injustice as a foremost global priority, alongside the urgent creation of a peaceful and sustainable future.

In the Guardian's ‘100 months to save the world' series in October last year, Barbara Stocking set out the challenge of how to solve the world's environmental predicament. She wrote: "The hard truth is that our lifestyles in rich countries are not compatible with our efforts to confront climate change. Our over-consumption of resources comes at the cost of the life chances of those who are denied their fair share of access to water, energy and food. But until we grasp this fact, our politicians will dodge the hard decisions." We cannot achieve a radical transformation of the economy without "a popular politics of fairness and thriving", she added. Because after all, "when the people lead, the leaders will follow."

This cogently highlights the greatest challenge of all in shifting to a sustainable world without poverty: the need to remedy the massive differences in consumption patterns and carbon emissions among people living in rich and poor countries. But given the intractability of government leaders on taking effective action, it is unlikely that this great transition will begin unless public opinion finally embraces the need to share the world's resources.

Photo credit: michael_stahl, flickr creative commons